"Evolution of Everything" Questions Effectiveness of Some Innovation Policies

Matt Ridley’s book The Evolution of Everything primarily discusses the issue of scientific research and its impact on innovation. More pointedly, perhaps, he looks at the role of basic science as a driver of technology innovation.

Innovation is something virtually everyone believes is important and worthy of support.

“Undoubtedly the capability to innovate and to bring innovation successfully to market will be a crucial determinant of the global competitiveness of nations over the coming decade,” the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development has said.

What might be less clear are causal relationships between inputs and outputs. Another OECD study of public research and development funding found some positive impact from public spending programs on the volume of private firm research by smaller firms.  

Most of us likely assume that investments in basic science are important, in large part, because they contribute to a faster rate of innovation. Ridley argues that is not the case, or at least not much of an enabler.

If correct, we are wasting quite a lot of time, money and effort in a misguided effort to affect a process that is resistant to any such intervention. “Most technological breakthroughs come from technologies tinkering, not from researchers chasing hypotheses,” he argues.

In a broad sense, the book argues that major scientific achievements develop from the bottom up and cannot be much affected by top-down efforts. Other OECD research has looked at similar processes in education.  

“Governments cannot dictate either discovery or invention; they can only make sure that they don’t hinder it,” Ridley argues. “Innovation emerges unbidden from the way that human beings freely interact if allowed.”

None of that is going to prevent governments from acting as though investments in public research are necessary and helpful.
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